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Battlefield

Reviewed by David Bishop

'Battleflawed' would be a more appropriate title, having seen this, the first story broadcast in Season 26. The ever-resourceful Jon Preddle received an off-air copy of this story just ten days after the final episode screened and a command screening was hastily arranged. This review is written having seen the show only once and without the extensive post-mortem process which will see it torn syllable from syllable in the coming months.

Basically Battlefield could have been a classic but part four contains a series of cop-outs which see it limp to a lame conclusion. Without giving away vast chunks of the plot I'll try to outline some of the disappointments (there are several) and some of the joys (there are many). If you want to save your own response and suspense until you get a chance to see it, don't read what follows.

For a start, one of the critical elements is the return from retirement of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicholas Courtney is excellent (but has packed on several spare tires) and the Mawdryn Undead continuity crisis is neatly tied up with the debut of his wife (!) Doris. Indeed the adventure opens with them shopping for shrubs in a garden centre. The problem is the first few parts (especially one) are laced with sledgehammer hints the Brig will die, as per pre-publicity rumours. This turns out to be a giant tease. A peek at Aaronovitch's original submission on this would be very interesting as I sense the hand of rewriting and Cartmel diluting what could have been a classic death story like Earthshock.

Other disappointments: the ending with the Doctor talking another foe into submission (e.g. Kane in Dragonfire, sundry Daleks) is getting a bit well-worn by this stage. Jean Marsh as Morgaine is excellent and well-restrained by director Michael Kerrigan but her final fate (as with son Mordred) is laughable - they get sent to jail, do not pass go and do not collect $200. Naff.

The planet-eating Destroyer is a stunning effects/mask/makeup job (reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Legend monster played by Tim Curry) but for a creature of incredible powers, is dispatched with ludicrous ease.

Other bitches: two of the characters are virtual throwaways. The Shou Yuing character (played by Ling Tai) seems to serve no purpose beyond owning a blue car and being a mate for Ace. And the archaeologist Peter Warmsley (James Ellis) outlives his usefulness by the end of Part Two and gets evacuated soon after!

While this story isn't padded so obviously as The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part Four, this is fat which could be trimmed. But much of this fat is put to good use by Aaronovitch fleshing out (pardon the extended metaphor) the characters. However why does the Brigadier not meet the Doctor until Part Three?

Enough moaning, there are vast amounts of good things. In fact Parts One, Two and Three positively crackle alone setting up a stunning denouncement. Only in the final part does the production team chicken out.

Favourite bits: the new black African leader of UNIT, Brigadier Winifred Bambera, is a great character, with her catch phrase of "Oh sh-shame!" substituting another, better known expletive. Her battles with the good Arthurian knight Ancelyn (physical, verbal and romantic) are brilliant. The characterisation and inter-action between characters is excellent throughout, obviously one of Aaronovitch's strong points. Ancelyn too is well rounded while the character of Ace and her relationship with the Doctor just keep getting better. Sophie Aldred's apparent departure midway through season 27 will be a sad loss.

McCoy is great, his darker costume reflecting a more sombre tone in his role - long gone are pantomime excesses of Time and the Rani et al. The effects range from adequate (explosions) to great (the Destroyer) and direction is firm and committed.

Keff McCulloch's music is typically bombastic but it suits the battle-soaked nature of this sword and sorcery meets future-shocked Britain - where a glass of water and a glass of lemonade cost five pounds and the Prime Minister is male.

In the final analysis, it is the script that lets this story down. Rating Battlefield against Season 25, it does not match Remembrance of the Daleks but perhaps ties with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - each having their own faults. A case of lost opportunities - but still highly enjoyable. You'll love the first three episodes but Part Four... Oh well.

Reviewed by Murray Jackson

Ben Aaronovitch has done it again! His latest effort is (well, I think so anyway) better than last season's Remembrance of the Daleks. Aaronovitch is definitely the best writer for Doctor Who at present and I'd say, the best since those writing for Davison's last season.

In Battlefield he has taken up an old Hinchcliffe trait - steal any classic story and formulate a rollicking good piece of drama for Doctor Who.

Sure, Battlefield has its down bits. I still hate some of the glitzy music, and the atmosphere that made so many of the Davison stories moody and 'believable' is still not there.

The programme still suffers from not taking itself seriously enough. However, that aside, the production is miles better than anything offered recently and in some departments way ahead of what it used to be.

Most of you will know by now that the story incorporates elements of the Arthurian legend. Even the names are familiar; Morgaine, Mordred, Merlin and even Excalibur the sword turns up. Basically it concerns Morgaine and friends who turn up to claim Excalibur which would give them the power to overcome the 'good guys' represented by their sole representative in this story, Ancelyn. All are from a parallel Universe dependant on sorcery combined with technology. The Doctor and Ace stumble upon the scene and are helped by the Brigadier who has come out of retirement especially. The Doctor, mistaken for the powerful Merlin by the aliens, tries to stop Earth becoming the final battlefield for both forces, and the unleashing of the evil Destroyer, a demon that eats worlds!

If you reckon that sounds great you should watch it. My big quibble with the story is that it never clearly defines what both sides are and what they're fighting for.

All the actors have a field day. Top of the list must be Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. This story is the Brigadier's story. His first words to the Doctor sum up what a truly great reunion story this is: "I just can't let you out of my sight, can I Doctor?" And he has a comment on UNITs new armament capabilities: "...we've even got gold tipped bullets for you-know-what!"

Even the aliens don't leave him short of an answer:
Mordred: "My mother will destroy you!"
Brigadier: "Just between you and me Mordred, I'm getting a little sick of hearing about your mother."

McCoy and Aldred continue to strengthen their relationship as companions. The lines are tighter. For example there is a point where the Doctor requests Ace to use her explosives capabilities. Ace miscalculates the time required to get clear and they are thrown to the ground in the ensuing blast. "Ace!" chides the Doctor. "I think the timer needs work," says Ace sheepishly. The Doctor continues: "One of these days we're going to have a nice long talk about acceptable safety standards!"

McCoy continues to get better in the role. He has a wider range of emotions and expressions than he did in his first season. Unfortunately when he gets angry he lapses into a Scottish accent and reveals he hasn't cleaned his teeth.

The effects are great. Check out the apparition guarding Excalibur - a marvellous greeny barracuda-like comet diving, swooping and knocking the Doctor off his feet.

The Destroyer, apart from being a hideous shade of blue, is still great, all fangs and bad breath reminiscent of the Predator in the movie of the same name.

Even Bessie makes an appearance, this time with the numberplate 'WHO 7'.

The last word must be about the Brigadier's new-found civilian life. Doris his wife decides to go out with the girls:
"What about supper?" he queries, a note of pain in his voice.
"Oh, that's a good idea," replies Doris, "have something really delicious ready for us when we get home."
They head off, Ancelyn watching them in admiration. "Aaah, magnificent," he enthuses.
"Yes." says the Brig very unenthusiastically, "Tell me Ancelyn, are you any good with a lawnmower?"
The Doctor grins. "I'll cook," he says.

Ben Aaronovitch, I eagerly anticipate your next effort!

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

Ben Aaronovitch seems to be a Doctor Who fan first, and a script writer second. Last years' Remembrance of the Daleks was the best Dalek story for thirteen years. With this impressive debut from the fan writer in mind, it was with keen anticipation that I sat down to watch Battlefield with two others, David Bishop and Jon Preddle, who were also seeing it for the first time. Whilst we were watching it, it seemed impressive and exciting, and for a while it looked as though it might be another McCoy classic in the making. But such things were not to be for this story, and as the credits rolled on the final episode, doubt began to set in. What the hell was it all about, anyway?

Battlefield leaves you with the distinct impression that you've been cheated of something better. It is a story about another story, set in Earth's past, but the Doctor's personal future. The problem is, we seem to get the bum end of the deal. Obviously the Eighth (?) Doctor had some fantastic encounter with King Arthur and Morgaine back in the Eighth Century. He was around long enough for at least one of Arthur's knights to become acquainted with the nature of the TARDIS, to become established as the great wizard Merlin, and to construct a concealed tunnel complete with traps and voice-keyed doors leading to a spaceship sitting on the bed of Lake Vortigern. Though what purpose the ship served other than Arthur's tomb is anyone's guess, as is the mystery of why, by 1992, the ship still hadn't been discovered! I'd love to know exactly what did happen in that story we didn't see, although the improbability of it all leads me to doubt if in fact Aaronovitch knew himself.

Despite having all the artefacts associated with this other adventure located on our own Earth, the Arthurian contingent actually arrive on Earth from a parallel universe - "another dimension where the man (Arthur) was closer to the myth," say the Doctor. "But what is he doing here?" That's a question we'd like answered, but unfortunately for reasons best known to Aaronovitch, we are denied the luxury of an explanation. He seems to have a particular method of plot construction which also appears to a lesser extent in Remembrance of the Daleks: keep things moving along rapidly enough, and there won't be time to question the inadequate explanations or all too frequent complete absence of the above. And it is true to say that Battlefield is pacey enough to stand up to a one-off viewing. Certainly, I think the sizeable audience at the latest Auckland Video Day highly enjoyed it. But view it carefully a second or third time as I have done, and the veneer crumbles away to reveal a shallow, insubstantial and above all highly flawed plot beneath.

Another of Aaronovitch's techniques is to cleverly disguise his poor plot with a lot of decoration to distract the viewer yet again. By decoration, I mean the completely unnecessary reappearance of both Bessie and the Brigadier. If, for some reason, Nicholas Courtney had been unable to reprise the role, his character could have been effortlessly removed from the scripts, especially from Parts One and Two in which he is decidedly ineffectual. The couple of scenes in which he plays a crucial role could have been easily allocated to the other Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, a strong character undermined by the occasional laughably bad line, but nevertheless easily the most innovative amongst a remarkably bland and contradictory assortment of characters. The Doctor and Ace seemed to do most of the things in the story, and the rest of the 'good' characters at least were just there, it seemed, to keep them company.

By contradictory characters, I mean that for example Peter Warmsley, the archaeologist of the Carbury Trust who has been painstakingly excavating an important Arthurian site for a whole decade, hardly raises a single word in protest when Ace blows a deep hole in the middle of his diggings, despite his earlier stated fervent objection to any such action. And to add insult to injury, Shou Yuing openly shares Ace's destructive attitude towards archaeology - and she is meant to be Warmsley's archaeology assistant! As if this wasn't enough character contradiction for one story, the worst example is Jean Marsh's character of Morgaine the witch, who will quite happily set off a nuclear missile, shoot down a helicopter or kill a weaponless woman in cold blood, but will restore the sight of the publican's wife at the Gore Crow Hotel for simply giving her son Mordred a drink!

One thing that irritated me about Remembrance of the Daleks were the gags, which were usually but not always in-jokes. I cannot help feeling that the story would have worked just as well without them, and might have been taken a little more seriously into the bargain. In Battlefield, the gags return, only Aaronovitch has inserted even more.

Being a fan writer can have its faults - most of the in-jokes required a background in the series history stretching back to the genesis of UNIT in 1968, something that few non-fan viewers would possess. And even then, Aaronovitch occasionally got it wrong: Since when did the Brigadier know that gold killed Cybermen, and how on Earth did Zbrigniev know that the Doctor had "changed several times"? Even if he had been with UNIT since its inception, he could only have known of two occasions on which the Doctor had regenerated.

Part of this 'fan writing' means that Aaronovitch has not only revived UNIT, he has virtually transplanted bits of various UNIT stories. From The Mind of Evil we get the missile convoy; from The Daemons the demon intent on destroying the world from a church, a field of distortion around the area, black magic and an archaeological dig; from The Time Monster the confrontation between UNIT and the knights, from Robot the narrowly-averted nuclear countdown, and from Terror of the Zygons, a spaceship remaining hidden for centuries under a lake with a tunnel connecting it to the shore. The question is, is this stepping beyond the bounds of simple homage to a past era and into the realm of straightforward borrowing of ideas? Considering that another large chunk of Battlefield is lifted from Mallory's Morte D' Arthur, one wonders if there is precious little actual original material in the story at all.

The worst thing about the story though, is the second half of the last episode. If this had been thought out with a bit more imagination, then the whole thing might have looked better. The downhill slide starts when the Brigadier shoots the Destroyer with silver bullets which he has conveniently acquired, and the Destroyer is destroyed - it's that simple. Next we learn that the future Doctor has written his past self a note warning himself about Morgaine's plan to set off the missile. One wonders what happened the first time around - presumably until he actually wrote the note, the future Doctor can have had no recollection of reading it, so he must have been alerted to Morgaine by other means... I think! Then of course there's the grand old cliche of the countdown being stopped with one second to go. I wondered when that was going to pop up again! Finally, and this is the worst bit of all, the surviving 'baddies' are locked up in jail! How ridiculous can you get? I suppose Aaronovitch might have been thinking of the conclusion of The Daemons when the Master is taken away to prison, but Morgaine has many supernatural powers, for goodness sake! The Doctor would not be stupid enough to just have her and her son locked up! I won't describe the final scene of the story here, but for a happy ending, I felt decidedly unhappy - it made me cringe.

In this review, I have concentrated in particular on the writing as this was the story's major fault. The acting and direction were both of a high standard for Doctor Who and there is no doubt in my mind that this story fails because of the way in which it was written. There are just too many flaws to be excusable. I think I'll just submit the whole darn thing to Doctor's Dilemma!

Reviewed by Richard Scheib

So far at least, Season 26 is proving uninteresting - hopefully the other stories will pick up. At least McCoy and Aldred are well at home in their roles, particularly McCoy who has great fun with the mock ferocious rolled 'r's and nonchalant looniness, Aaronovitch having written scenes especially for him in Battlefield. And as the season goes on Ace's particular brand of tomboy streetwise and yet emotional vulnerability is even better explored.

Like Season 25, this opens with a Ben Aaronovitch script. Aaronovitch seems to have become the new boy wonder of Doctor Who. One hopes that the BBC hasn't tried to play their best card first this season. Although it isn't a particularly bad script, it seems one more of missed opportunities.

But first the high points - Angela Bruce, striking one of the series best blows for equal rights, as the new UNIT commander-in-chief Brigadier Winifred Bambera, playing with just the right droll note. Better still is Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom, the series shortest-serving companion, who also played Mombi in Return to Oz) who evokes considerable dignified nobility as Morgaine.

But the script often leaves much to be desired - the Brigadier's return isn't that well used - and considering how old he's looking it is probably only too well. But there are many irritations - the background isn't that well explained. The gimmick of the Doctor being able to get out of a tight corner by having a future incarnation leave a note to tell him Ace is in danger is just so cute, it's stupid - it's like that scene in the film Spaceballs where the villains find the good-guys by watching the video of the film. It's dumb. The scene with Morgaine trying to trick Ace and Shou Yuing out of the magic circle is quite well sustained until you realize it has been stolen literally scene for scene from the 1968 Hammer Films adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out. Also I thought the scene where the Doctor persuades Morgaine out of detonating a nuclear warhead was rather stupid, considering that a few minutes earlier she had been quite prepared to set loose a world-destroying monster on Earth just to destroy the Doctor.

And last a minor quibble - I'm all in favour of the Arthurian legends, I think they're great, but I do wish people would go back and use the original ones instead of the Anglicised ones.

Reviewed by Andrew Poulsen

Well, unlike just about everyone else, I really enjoyed both Battlefield and Ghost Light; in fact, I'd rate Season 26 so far as the best since Season 21. McCoy and Aldred just keep getting better and better, with their characters going from strength to strength. The revelation about her past in Ghost Light is extremely in-character and well conceived by the writer, Marc Platt. The Doctor is more sinister than before, although, like everybody else, I do wish he'd stop talking his foes into submission - it's becoming extremely repetitive, just like the easy-to-kill Cybermen, the sonic screwdriver and K9 to the rescue! Sooner or later, the producers will wake up and realise this, with is why I predict that the Eighth Doctor will have a stutter or speech impediment so as to overcome yet another cliche! I do not, however, approve of McCoy's new jacket, it lacks the characteristic Doctor-ishness of the old one.

Battlefield is another well-scripted Aaronovitch story. The characters are well thought out and believable, although I will agree that Shou Yuing is a throwaway, just there to be pals with Ace. I feel Aaronovitch could have used her more if she had opposed Ace's explosive tendencies, and been far more dedicated to archaeology, a career where research, care and patience are all very necessary qualities. Angela Bruce as Brigadier Bambera is brilliant, and plays the role even better than she portrayed the alternative universe Lister in Red Dwarf Season Two. The electricity between Bambera and Ancelyn is very hot, I'd love to see the both of them return in a future story (or even a spin-off series - 'A Knight Comes To Town', perhaps? Ancelyn joins up with UNIT, and has to become accustomed to our Earth's laws, rules and regulations. There is enough potential in both characters to warrant such a production.) The relationship between the two is, to my mind, better than that between to the supporting characters in The Talons of Weng-Chiang who were being considered as a spin-off series.

The Brigadier is as great as always, even if he is a little set in his ways and behind the times for the 1990's. For example, when querying the helicopter pilot on the new Brigadier (it goes something like this):
Brigadier: So, who's in charge now?
Pilot: Brigadier Bambera, sir.
Brigadier: Bambera, eh. What's the chap like?

There are several discrepancies in the plot, for instance, how is the Doctor able to leave a note to himself on our Earth if the future adventure mentioned throughout takes place in an alternative dimension?

The special effects are brilliant, and the incidental music is well scored by Keff McCulloch. More of that great rousing military music that he used to effect in Remembrance of the Daleks.

So, taken just as it is, and not delving too deeply into the plot, it's a wonderful and enjoyable romp with the Doctor and Ace. I loved it. Of course, if you're into pulling stories apart for continuity's sake, you'll have a field day. But hell, isn't Doctor Who supposed to be entertaining and ratings grabbing, not an audition for Mastermind? (No offence, Jon!)

This item appeared in TSV 16 (December 1989).

Index nodes: Battlefield